Norma Thornton, 78, sued her local government in late October after being arrested for feeding the poor. She lives in Bullhead City, Arizona, a city that penalizes the charitable sharing of food in public parks with up to four months imprisonment. Though her charges were dropped, Thornton and the Institute for Justice are seeking to stop enforcement of the ordinance (The Guardian). Bullhead City is just one of the dozens of U.S. cities that have passed discriminatory and outrageous legislation criminalizing sharing food with unhoused people. Thirty-three such laws were passed in 2014 alone (Vice). Houston threatened residents who fed unhoused people without a permit with a $2,000 fine. Columbia, South Carolina, required getting a $150 permit half a month in advance. Seattle limited outdoor food sharing to city-approved locations (National Coalition for the Homeless).
It’s worth taking a minute to note how strange such laws are. A sandwich I purchase or make for myself is mine to do with as I please. I could eat it, save it for later, or throw it in the garbage. I could give it to my friend, a coworker, or a random passerby because I like the hat they’re wearing. But in cities with anti-homeless legislation, the one thing I’m not allowed to do in public with my sandwich, short of assaulting someone with it, is give it to a hungry person because they’re hungry.
Since houselessness skyrocketed in the United States in the 1980s, cities have instituted anti-homeless legislation prohibiting sharing food, sleeping on sidewalks, and panhandling. Some cities with the most onerous anti-homeless legislation are supposedly liberal bastions like San Francisco. Far from reducing homelessness, such laws create a “never-ending cycle of homelessness,” something “especially true for women and transgender” unhoused people (SFSU). Anti-homeless laws are often the product of Business Improvement Districts and private sector urban renewal initiatives (Berkeley). Displacing, criminalizing, and starving unhoused people doesn’t magically get them into housing. But it does push them out of gentrifying commercial districts for the benefit of business owners.
Public spaces are supposed to be for everyone, places where we can come together with other people when not working, shopping, or in a private home. Laws restricting our enjoyment of public spaces like parks to exclude the poor are a betrayal of this mission. Enjoyment of common areas becomes a privilege for those above a certain income bracket, who are only permitted to use them if they don’t attract the poor. Though these inhumane laws target unhoused people, they are an affront to us all, since it’s not only people sleeping outside who benefit when we share food collectively.
Thirty-eight million people in U.S. households lack access to sufficient food, not all of whom are unhoused (IHPL). And it’s not only food-insecure people who benefit from free, shared meals. They’re an opportunity for people of different class backgrounds to come together through preparing or eating food together in a space not mediated by the market. In this way, giving away food in a park isn’t just a legitimate use of public space. It’s perhaps the perfect use of public space. That’s because, in the words of sociologist Jacek Tittenbrun:
“Public spaces are the arenas of the collective, common life that is vital to a thriving society. They are places where citizens can exercise their civic freedoms. In public spaces we are all equal, which underlines their democratic nature. Private control and stratification are thus inimical to the very heart of democratic principle. Democracy cannot survive when civil rights are being subordinated to property rights, citizenship to consumerism” (The Conversation).
Bans on feeding unhoused people betray the public and, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Constitution (Global Citizen). The best way to resist is to take direct action to ensure that all of our neighbors are fed. Food Not Bombs chapters around the world feed unhoused people with food that would otherwise be discarded. “Food Not Bombs brings community every week; people stumble upon us and we share food — a common struggle and joy. We are not about charity, we are about solidarity within our community,” says one volunteer (Loyola Phoenix). You can find a local group here. But this doesn’t have to be done through an organization at all. All it takes is some food, a few friends, and a willingness to build community across differences and respond to the needs, preferences, and desires of folks on the street. There’s good advice on how to support unhoused people here, starting with open communication and letting unhoused people lead.
There’s no better time to start than now, since this week is a national week of action for housing justice. Activists are encouraging individuals to take self-organized action “whether with banner drops, walkouts, street art, postering, opening up vacant homes as shelter for the unhoused, exposing conditions in your city’s shelters or camps, food serves and radical distro in your neighborhood, lighting fireworks, or whatever creative ideas people come up with” as part of a #HalloweenUprising for #HomesNotHellscapes (IGD).
“I have always believed that when you have plenty, you should share,” says Norma Thornton (The Guardian). She’s built real friendships with the people she shares food with—despite the best efforts of local government and the police (AZ Central). We should follow her example.
• Cities across the United States criminalize giving food to unhoused people.
• These anti-homeless legislation degrade public space and community while worsening poverty and polarization.
• We can take direct action by feeding our neighbors collectively.